A collection buried during the early Iron Age.Dot Boughton, Portable Antiquities Scheme

Multiple artifact collections unearthed in the U.K. suggest that the earliest known museums could date to around 680 B.C. or even earlier. They force a rethinking of what museums are, and how certain ancient populations valued treasured objects.

Museums, by their definition, are institutions or organized groups that conserve a collection of artifacts.

Such a collection, now called the "Tisbury Hoard," was found in a field in Wiltshire, England.

"It contains around 114 bronze weapons, tools and ornaments, and was probably buried in the early Iron Age, in or towards the end of the seventh century B.C.," Dot Boughton, a researcher with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, wrote in a paper published in the latest issue of British Archaeology.

While the objects were buried simultaneously, they cover a span of 1,000 years.

At first this might appear to be some metalworker's sample kit, or an individual's private collection. But since multiple hoards of this nature featuring different types of objects have been found in key locations in the U.K., Boughton believes that the collections were "community museums."

A spearhead from the Tisbury Hoard.Dot Boughton, Portable Antiquities Scheme

One of the first objects to be found from the Tisbury Hoard was this spearhead. In total, 40 pieces of weaponry were included in this particular collection.

Often craftsmen recycled old metal objects, but this and many others appear intentionally to have been saved and grouped with additional artifacts.

A bent knife from the Wiltshire dig.Dot Boughton, Portable Antiquities Scheme

This bent knife blade was also recovered at the Wiltshire dig.

Archaeologist Mike Pitts, who edits British Archaeology, told Discovery News, "Hoards of prehistoric bronzes are common in northern Europe, and have become even more so in Britain with the success of the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme, which brings metal detectorists and archaeologists together.

Usually the stuff in the hoards is more or less contemporary, often interpreted as a smith's work in progress, scrap and raw materials; or the stock of a trader."

But the latest discoveries have experts such as himself and Boughton thinking "there has to be another explanation" for at least certain artifact groupings. The community museums, he shares, perhaps could have been "in the form of shrines" offering "respect for distant ancestors."

Archaeologists at work at Tisbury Dig.Dot Boughton, Portable Antiquities Scheme

Archaeologists work at the site in Wiltshire to excavate the objects.

At first they thought the find was just "a compact mass of corroded bronze," Boughton said. Further digging instead revealed multiple treasures.

Ennigaldi-Nanna's Museum in Turkey. M. Lubinski

If the new theory -- that prehistoric Britons had museums -- is correct, these would predate Ennigaldi-Nanna's Museum in Turkey, shown here.

Dated to 530 B.C., it previously was considered to be the oldest known museum. Its ruins are located in modern-day Iraq. The curator was Princess Ennigaldi, the daughter of the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

A clay cylinder that may be among the earliest known museum labels.Sir Leonard Woolley

A clay cylinder inscribed with a description in three languages was used in Ennigaldi-Nanna's Museum. It accompanied an ancient artifact.

Despite the recent finds in the U.K., the inscriptions on this cylinder are still considered to be the earliest known "museum labels."

Miniature Iron Age shields. British Museum

A collection from Salisbury, England includes 463 pieces ranging in date over some 1,500 years.

Among the collection are these miniature Iron Age shields. Even if an early metalworker used them as samples, some other individual(s) not from the modern period later acquired them and added the extra objects.

A collection awaiting conservation.Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, Dot Boughton

A collection awaiting conservation is this large hoard from Hindon, England.

Pitts said it is "a compact mass of metalwork, with Bronze Age socketed axes and rings, an early Iron Age heeled socketed sickle, and three iron socketed spearheads."

Bronze horse harness decorations.Wiltshire Museum, Dot Boughton

These items from Melksham, Wiltshire, were found in a riverbank hoard.

The discs, which show piercings from swords or spears, were bronze horse harness decorations, according to Boughton and Pitts. They probably were imports from central Europe dating from 800-600 B.C.

The other objects shown here include bronze and iron spearheads.

Axes, chisels, swords, spearheads, pins and ornaments. Dot Boughton, Portable Antiquities Scheme

The 114 pieces of the Tisbury Hoard include axes, tools such as chisels, swords, spearheads, pins and ornaments.

They again date to different time periods, yet were buried together over 2,600 years ago, according to the new research.

Metal items dating from 2200 to 100 B.C.British Museum

This portion of a collection was unearthed in Danebury, Hampshire. The metal items date from 2200 to 100 B.C.

"Perhaps when a piece of foreign or dated-looking metalwork was found, a community elder or leader was consulted, who suggested it should be kept as a tangible link with the past -- second in significance only to nearby stone circles, burial mounds or other prehistoric monuments," Boughton explained.

She added, "Perhaps, even, people felt a brief connection with distant ancestors of their own community. If that is right, these prehistoric people had some idea of time and its passing -- not just in years or decades, but centuries or millennia."